June 19, 2008

The Maturation Of Tiger

The world's best golfer has come a long way since his 1997 Masters title, not as a golfer, but as golf's goodwill ambassador

As Arnold Palmer was saying after his abdication ceremony, golf is in good hands. He also allowed that those same hands didn't have quite the total grasp of the situation in 1997, when Tiger Woods wondered why the world out there wouldn't let him be normal. Because you aren't, The King told The Kid, so don't fight it. Be thankful and enjoy. Woods won the Masters by 12 shots, but that was only the beginning of his learning curve, on either side of the ropes. Tiger claimed his third green jacket last Sunday by three swings, yet he's better than ever now, as a man of 26.

We'll never know where this game would be if Palmer had tiptoed around Augusta National in his youth, merely existing on television, a picture instead of a person. His phone number was easier to locate than his ego. He took a quiet sport and added to it the roar of the crowd in living color. He put golfers in a dress shirt, and golf on the map. He revived the British Open, and then he flew onward. Let there be no doubt why fairways and greens sprouted suddenly throughout so many distant lands. The King planted the seeds as an international goodwill ambassador.

Tiger arrived with abundant talent but a few rough edges and why not? In 1997, shortly before lapping the Masters field, his locker-room jokes appeared in a magazine, and he was pounded. Surely, no 21-year-old male ever went there, especially a messiah of 21 who was supposed to have all the answers and polish because we demanded that of him. Tiger stiff-armed the press, and by extension the public. The charismatic personality that comes across so naturally to friends was private property. At work, he seemed somewhat suspicious. Well, at 26, Tiger still knows when to say no, but there he was at last Wednesday night's dinner hosted by us wretched writers with his new girlfriend, Elin Nordegren. It was the latest example of Tiger's new comfort zone. Palmer was a blue-collar guy, but Woods is another dimension, a multi-ethnic hero who can bring golf to children with no collars. Tiger has put fellow players in chartered jets, funded by his singular brilliance. Peers who once dissed him out of uncertainty or jealousy now see a complete package. Their respect and admiration are shared by galleries sensing return vibes. Tiger loves this stage, and the audience, too.

We are on Tiger time now. Every spring, he also turns his clock ahead, only he gets more from an extra hour of daylight than do normal folks. On Saturday, he played 26 holes in eight under par. After that dawn-to-dusk drill, he looked ready for the senior prom; a few of his pursuers looked eager for bed. He sloshed through the same waterlogged acres, but he was better suited for the marathon, by no coincidence. Woods is a superior physical specimen who conditions mind and muscle to peak from April through August. "He's got it all figured out," said Butch Harmon, his swing coach, "including how to dial it up for the four big ones. What you don't see is how hard he practices and prepares."

If Woods didn't win his seventh major on that stressful Saturday, perhaps he won it Thursday, when nothing really clicked except his will. He shot a 70 that could have been 74, if he were normal. He has done that before, and he'll do that again. His foes know it, and he knows they know. He just won't say so. Officially, Tiger didn't commence performing surgery until 2:10 p.m. Sunday when he teed off with Retief Goosen, who halted Woods' streak at four straight majors last June. Realistically, Tiger declared his mission of a pure calendar slam earlier, maybe when he fully understood that he needn't sweat the small stuff out here. Let others perspire.

"God didn't want you to retire," someone told Palmer after his farewell was extended until Saturday by rain. Around that time, Woods was having lunch with José Maria Olazábal, his third-round sidekick who joked about being spotted 20 yards off each tee. By nightfall, Olazábal the warrior told Woods, "It was a pleasure watching you play golf." That motion need not be put to a vote. As The King savored his role, Tiger has found peace being Tiger, while the only constant and discernible rival to this man of 26 remains history: Jack Nicklaus, 62.